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Secret Life: The Select Fire Remix
Jeff VanderMeer
Prime Books, 304 pages

Secret Life: The Select Fire Remix
Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). He began the publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, which has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Balzac's War
SF Site Review: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: Secret Life
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: The Mansions of the Moon
SF Site Excerpt: The Mimic
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
SF Site Review: Veniss Underground
SF Site Review: Leviathan Three
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jakob Schmidt

The Select Fire Remix is a slightly altered version of Jeff VanderMeer's short fiction collection Secret Life (originally published by Golden Gryphon Press in 2004). It features about twenty pieces of short fiction (the exact number is not that easily determined, given the nature of some of the texts), ranging from realism to post-apocalyptic SF. Some stories from the original edition have been excluded and a few new pieces have been added, all that (and more) explained in the thirty pages of author's notes.

As a collection of short fiction, Secret Life gives VanderMeer the opportunity to prove his impressive stylistic and thematic range. Most of the stories in this book are best (if at all) classified as magical realism (or fabulism, if you prefer that term). The darkly ironic romance "Bone Carver's Tale" is set in medieval China, but doesn't feature any magic besides that of VanderMeer's poetic language; the fantastic content of "Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac" is at least debatable; "Mahout" has a protagonist who, since he feels the pain of others, could be described as psychic, but plays out more as realistic account of a real and somewhat twisted tragedy. One of the qualities of VanderMeer's short fiction is that it doesn't go for the cheap punch line -- it allows the stories to unfold without introducing artificial twists (maybe with the exception of the slightly dubious "Experiment 25"). The short fiction in Secret Life is more about unsettling transformations than about surprising twists, something also expressed by the pervasive theme of decomposition and recombination of dead/living parts: in "Balzac's War", dead human's faces are biotechnologically grafted on giant dogs; In "The Emperor's Reply" the blood streaming from the wounds of an Incan Emperor turns into a flock of red hummingbirds. Needless to say, Secret Life is brimming with inventive, both beautiful and disturbing imagery.

There are several small story cycles within this book: one consists of bizarrely funny fragments intersected between the stories, which detail the history of an office building whose occupants adhere to certain myths about the nature of the different floors; one encompasses three stories about the Spanish invasion of the Incas; and one is linked to VanderMeer's novel Veniss Underground. The post-apocalyptic Veniss setting with its creepy biotechnology makes for the most explicitly fantastic stories in this collection: there, for example, we have the "funnies," who are nothing but hopping human members connected to heads. Among the Veniss stories is "Balzac's War," the longest entry of the book and one of the stories that feel most fully realised. In its far-future war scenario, a group of human soldiers is under siege by bioengineered creatures, one of them (partly) being the former love of one of the defenders. The grim, surreal war scenario of this novella is strongly reminiscent of VanderMeer's novel Shriek.

I don't feel as enthusiastic about the "Inca cycle." While VanderMeer's ironic depiction of the conflicted character of the Spanish conquerors works quite well, he fails to invest Incan characters like Emperor Tupac Amaru with the same depth. The result is a rather romantic depiction of the latter, which, at least to me, seems at odds with the complexity I have come to expect of VanderMeer's works. Nevertheless, these three stories ("Manco Tupac," "The Emperor's Reply" and "The Bone Compass") are among the most accessible entries of this collection and might be a good point of departure for readers yet unfamiliar with VanderMeer.

Among the stories that stand out on their own are, most notably, the already mentioned "Bone Carver's Tale," the grim, realistic and political "Flight is for Those Who Have Not Yet Crossed Over" and the fairy-tale romance "Greensleeves." These are fully realised pieces of short fiction, each creating its own theme, setting and mood. On the other hand, pieces like "Detectives and Cadavers," "The Bone Compass" and "Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose" feel like fragments which contribute to the story cycles to which they are a part, but don't really hold up to scrutiny on their own.

Despite the obvious disparity of the featured stories, several free-floating themes and images keep cropping up. For example, there is a recurring connection between the image of bones and the notions of metamorphosis upon death. And then there's the mind-praying manta ray that indirectly links the Veniss and the Ambergris settings by appearing both in "Learning to leave the Flesh" and in "The City" -- incidentally, the two most surreal and enigmatic stories of the collection. While I adore "Learning to Leave the Flesh" for its honest depiction of the exploitative nature of writing, "The City" is too idiosyncratic for my tastes, showcasing VanderMeer's broad range of imagery but doing little to integrate it into a coherent image.

"The City" with its links to VanderMeer's multiple fictional settings is also emblematic of the main problem I have with Secret Life: the book is situated somewhere in between a classical short story collection and the complex, interwoven text/metatext of VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen; but Secret Life is much less focused than the latter. I found myself rather distracted by the metatextual links within the book, searching for them in stories that stand perfectly well on their own and often failing to decode them in stories that seemed to make little sense without them. I think this problem has a lot to do with how VanderMeer lets us in on the process of his writing: instead of cleanly untangling the elements of his different settings from each other, he sticks to the imagery he feels most appropriate for a story, even if he has used it before, and to other ends. While on the one hand, it is fascinating to see a setting like far-future Veniss emerge from various sources, it also often distracts from the inherent quality of VanderMeer's short fiction.

In the end, I liked Secret Life a little less than I wanted to, mainly because I expected a collection of short fiction, than lured myself into believing that I actually had another City of Saints and Madmen, and finally discovering that it was neither. Even though this already is The Select Fire Remix, I would still suggest reading selectively: if you find that a story is distracting or confusing, it might be best to skip it and return to it later, because you surely don't want to be distracted from such brilliant pieces of individual short fiction as "Mahout," "The General Who is Dead" or others mentioned above. This way, readers who are not yet familiar with the work of Jeff VanderMeer will find a lot of good starting points in Secret Life to venture into his strange and unsettling worlds.

Copyright © 2007 by Jakob Schmidt

Jakob writes and translates reviews, essays and short stories, most of them for the German magazine Alien Contact ( and its publishing house Shayol. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.

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